UPDATED: Where lies the line between board oversight and micromanagement?

Note: This post has been updated with more detail about when the threshold for school board approval for purchases was raised to $1 million. It also puts into perspective how far below past limits the current proposal to lower the threshold to $100,000 would be.

Here’s a question to which I don’t have a firm answer: When it comes to school board oversight of district finances, where does responsible stewardship end and micromanagement begin?

I ask because last week, Denver school board member Scott Baldermann flagged the fact that Denver Public Schools has a threshold of $1 million for expenditures, including contracts, that the school board must approve. Baldermann said he had done some research, and that locally and nationally, a more usual cutoff number is between $100,000 and $250,000. He wants to lower the DPS threshold to $100,000.

Baldermann’s proposal to lower the threshold for board approval to $100,000 would lower that threshold to 60 percent below what it was 13 years ago ($250,000) — and that’s not accounting for inflation.

During a recent board meeting, Baldermann cited the following specific urban districts and their limits:

  • Los Angeles Unified:$250,000
  • Albuquerque: $250,000
  • Portland (Oregon): $150,000
  • Houston:$100,000
  • Phoenix: $100,000

Boardhawk has filed a Colorado Open Records Act request with DPS to ascertain when and why the Denver board approved the $1 million limit, which does seem to be an outlier. Through my own digging into past school board agendas and minutes, I’ve discovered the date, but no details: It was in October 2007, during Michael Bennet’s tenure as superintendent. I’m hoping to learn more soon through the CORA request. Watch Boardhawk for updates.

UPDATE: The CORA data has arrived, and here are the details. In October, 2007, the board amended policy DJA and incorporated the following relevant changes:

  • Raised the limit for board approval of procurements, capital construction procurements, and contracts from $250,000 to $ 1million
  • Bestowed upon the superintendent that same authority to approve procurements and contracts under $1 million (raising it from $250,000)
  • Allowed four key positions subordinate to the superintendent to approve procurements and capital construction procurements of under $750,000: Chief Operating Officer, Chief of Staff, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Academic Officer.
  • The director of purchasing was granted authority to approve procurements and capital construction procurements under $500,000. That marks a ten-fold increase from the $50,000 limit that had been in effect.

Some of those limits were lowered a year later for positions subordinate to the superintendent. But the $1 million limit for the superintendent, passed in 2007, is still in effect today.

The same policy — labeled DJA — that governs board approval for expenditure limits was last revised in October, 2015, apparently to reflect changes in position titles. In substance, however, the policy limits remained the same.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that the demand to reduce the threshold for board approval of purchases originated with former board member Jeannie Kaplan in a blog post last March, which I have criticized elsewhere. Kaplan was on the board in 2009.

There’s no clear consensus among board governance experts I spoke to about what constitutes an appropriate level of financial oversight, and when oversight devolves into nitpicking and micromanagement.

But in an unpublished document Bellwether Education Partners prepared to accompany a board evaluation tool it developed several years ago, the think-tank offered some words of wisdom from academics, philanthropists, and advocates interviewed as part of the project. Their consensus was that  the most effective boards “do not involve themselves in day-to-day management above and beyond what is required by law.” These boards spend less time on day-to-day district operations, and the bulk of their time on broader student achievement issues.

Further, Bellwether found, strong school boards know how to distinguish between governance and management, and respect those boundaries. Close oversight of financial matters down to nitty-gritty details takes up valuable board time, which could better be spent on issues that hew more closely to student learning. Several people Bellwether interviewed for the paper said board micromanagement is often a sign of an ineffective board that is in danger of losing perspective on its “obligations to students, parents, and their community.”

Allies of Baldermann and Kaplan have been active on social media supporting the lower financial oversight threshold. They argue that the board’s move over the past decade to an approach known as Policy Governance has, essentially, allowed the DPS administration to grab too much power over decision-making from the board.

Here’s how an article in Education Week describes Policy Governance:

“…boards using Policy Governance monitor how well the district’s superintendent or chief executive officer meets the broadly written “ends” the board has defined as district goals. But the board does not prescribe the particulars of how the superintendent should reach them. Boards instead step back and evaluate what kind of job the top administrator is doing.”

Policy Governance is strongly supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, which offers training in the approach.

One has to wonder whether critics of the current administration would rail against Policy Governance if they were to succeed in their ultimate aim to replace the current DPS leadership with people more in line with their purportedly progressive values.

I suspect if those tables were turned, Policy Governance would look pretty good to them.

Stay tuned for a future post about policy governance and whether it serves school districts like DPS well.

Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb
Alan Gottlieb is Boardhawk’s editor. Alan has been a Denver-based journalist for more than 30 years. He covered DPS for the Denver Post in the mid-1990s, worked as an education program officer for The Piton Foundation, and co-founded Education News Colorado and Chalkbeat. For the past five years, he has worked as a contract writer and communications consultant.